The advocating of Biochar personifies a process that needs to be redressed in order to get back on track with land management that allows a future use for land sustainably. I could pick on many dubious products or techniques, but I choose Biochar here because a) it claims to be ‘green’ and b) I have seen the damage caused to soil organisms by Biochar for myself, which I can only describe as very scary.

Also it is important to note that I write this solely from personal experience of some European soils. Biochar was born out of research into Terra Preta soils found in the Amazonian basin. Terra Preta is an anthropogenic soil; the result of charcoal and other compostable human waste 2500 – 500 years ago, which produced a very rich, highly concentrated in carbon, soil.

But the detritivores at work in the Amazon basin are not found in European soils and they certainly should not be introduced into Europe either.  The soil is different and until we wait many years to see long term effects on our different flora and fauna also (asides that in the soil following direct application), we will not know whether biochar is actually very damaging or not. So why bother with Biochar?

It is all to do with money linked to Carbon. European soils are already huge carbon stores, (soils worldwide store massive quantities of CO2, second only to our oceans), with peat soils storing the most – hence the arguments over peat usage.  If we can use (or rather abuse) soils to store even more carbon then this is surely worth investment and thus an additional and huge carbon trading opportunity. Therefore the use of Biochar is heavily publicised by investors and as with so much else the credence, solid scientific research, goes out of the window.

Biochar is an easy sell, it fits in with many land management principles from across the spectrum, from permaculture through to mainstream agriculture. The monumental lack of research is ignored in a gold rush to further feed the new tier of pseudo ‘environmentalists’ who see themselves as the chief entrepreneurs of a new ‘green’ economy  but may actually be selling a product more catastrophic than oil.

Even if any of the existing research carried out in any part of the globe with regards Biochar included a comprehensive study into groundwater; a study of wider biodiversity; a study of all potential land use and a study into the immediate health issues for residents – well, what about 100metres away where the geology is different? What about 25, 50 or 100 years time?

The cost of the research needed suddenly makes biochar unviable. So turn to lobbying instead, explain the basics to a ‘thinktank’ who write a report, following no established peer review process, which changes policy. This form of lobbying is the greatest malfeasance of modern politics and for which the only rebuttal is through protest costing the taxpayer lots of money but not those lobbying.

Here’s an idea; Why not pay farmers, landowners even garden owners for the carbon stored on their property, pay them for protecting it through good management. Pay them more when they can increase the carbon storage through established methods that are proven to do no harm to that location indeed actually enhance it; like broadleaved woodland planting? Because it won’t pay for a large brand new office just outside Stroud for ‘Biochar Global PLC’ or a new Aston Martin or meal with a politician. [A bit of digression, but why are there so many huge new offices proudly photographed and placed on the website of the ever increasing amount of ecology or sustainable consultancy companies? Are people really that blind to the hypocrisy of this, surely a photo of someone working from their house looking out onto a garden would be much better publicity?]

The natural elements in our landscape are financially viable but not through offsetting, be it carbon or the new nonsense of biodiversity offsetting. They are financially viable as they are through ecosystem services  and can and should be insured for. A real green economy can only be realised by looking after what we have and creating more of it, (but I won't say here how this money is actually made, that can only be discovered by talking to a land management practitioner!).

For further information, this very interesting thread on Arbtalk involving the eminent mycolgist Gerrit Jan Keizer is well worth reading: http://arbtalk.co.uk/forum/tree-health-care/29013-mycorrhiza.html#post478050

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  • Dear pilchas12

    Thank you for your email, which in the spirit of transparency I have copied and pasted as it was in reply to this blog:

    “You say biochar damages soil organisms, but nothing more. What is your proof for such a matter of fact statement we do not have to take your word for this without proof.

    Because we don’t know what the effects could be that we shouldn’t try the best solution that helps lower carbon levels in the atmosphere which is the biggest threat to mankind.

    There is plenty of better research than your hearsay that biochar does no harm to mychorrizae fungi which exist across the world in all soils.”

    I cannot comment further on the damage I saw to macro soil organisms in a biochar experiment because it was part of a scientific research project following proper procedure and which is still ongoing (But between you and me French worms really don’t like biochar much!)

    It is precisely because we do not know the effects that we should be very cautious with biochar, which we do know does raise pH levels considerably and therefore will be very damaging in many soil locations across Europe. We also have some evidence from historic ‘charcoal’ production sites in semi natural woodlands, where the soil is different, the flora is less and the sites are thus easily recognised for what they were from the significantly diminished ecosystem that now struggles on such sites – it is why our forebears and those who still produce charcoal rotate the areas for the burn! We also have evidence in many of our towns and villages across Europe where fire waste has been dumped in the gardens of historic buildings, okay strictly speaking not ‘biochar’ but fairly close. This changes the soil dramatically so that a 2oo year old cottage garden is usually incapable of growing certain plants, including native and fruiting trees which are common outside the area concerned.

    I tend to simply ignore any ‘research’ fully or in part paid for by companies that sell the product in question and your link was such. Maybe this is wrong in this day and age as the sheer volume of research paid for in this way is a lot to ignore – but it just seems too open to potential corruption to me. But I am also yet to see any research with reference to biochar in European soils which is comprehensive enough to cater for the complexity and diversity of soils we are lucky to have and the range of organisms that complement mychorrizal fungi existence.

    Personally I cannot understand why we should be looking towards the costly method of biochar, (which can only be funded through carbon credits or grants otherwise it is financial unviable), when we could be properly composting instead, which is significantly cheaper, tackles a waste issue as well and which is categorically proven to improve soil and increase populations of beneficial soil organisms.

     

  • Interesting - I was informed by an allotment holder at my plot that BIOchar is evil - in her own words, because it kills earth worms. I asked why and she said "because to them its like use crawling over shattered glass" that the small sharp char particles abrade them and have much the same effect at that size end of the food web in the soil. Ultimatly this has a knock on effect down the chain as well as up.
    I agree biochar should be stopped dead in its tracks until we understand its effects. Interestingly, similar increaces in soil carbon can be gained through the use of compost, which helps much invetebrate life. And If Bio char is found to Help, could be combined at a later date en masse.

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